In order to make the creative world feel a bit less lonely and a bit more connected in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been publishing a new blog series—CoviDiaries—that brings us into the homes and minds of various designers, illustrators and other professionals, to see how they’re coping. Here, Steven Heller checks in with Randy J. Hunt in Singapore. As he discusses below, Hunt is head of design at Grab, where he leads a team of designers, writers and researchers who create Southeast Asia’s Super App. Prior to Grab, he served as head of design at Artsy, VP of design at Etsy, and co-founded the curated design marketplace Supermarket.
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You moved over a year ago to Singapore, lock, stock and studio. This is after being design director of two major online players.
I’m leading design at an enterprise called Grab. Grab is the largest tech company in Southeast Asia. For designers in the West, a good reference might be if you added together Uber, GrubHub and Square … plus telemedicine, insurance, lending, a messaging platform, and entertainment channels like videos and games. We call Grab the “everyday, everything app.” Imagine it like the hub of your daily life.
Your part of the world has been hit hard by COVID-19. How’s it going there?
It’s looking like everyone is getting hit hard now. Southeast Asia is vulnerable for a few reasons: physical proximity, family proximity, and trade with mainland China was a risk early when COVID-19 began to spread. Singapore itself, much like Hong Kong and Taiwan, is an island state with well-functioning infrastructure that learned a lot from the SARS crisis in 2002–2003. I was really impressed and proud of how the Singapore Ministry of Health and other departments stepped into action swiftly and strongly. Their policies and communications have been reassuring.
“Under control” is a relative term. Are you able to work, interact, pursue a “normal” life?
As a leader in a large organization, “normal” always includes ensuring there’s clarity on where we’re heading and the energy, tools, resources and plan to get there. How we go about doing that changes with the times, and right now what’s urgent has a level of criticality that it hasn’t in the past. What’s consistent is the vision and values underneath, and that feels normal still. Challenging times are when we learn the most and are pushed to be our best selves. None of that is unique to design. As a discipline with some strong communication skills, helping with making sure things are clear, visualized and understandable can be very valuable contributions. The fundamentals of communication design are always helpful.
What is a new normal day like?
I’m highly mobile, often working away from my office. So, in that sense, this new normal is also away from the office. However, I’m not traveling around Southeast Asia or between our various offices. I’m in my home office daily. Remote meeting and remote collaboration culture have been present in my daily work for many years. Now it’s gone from practicality or preference … to requirement.
Lots of snapping pictures of sketches and sharing screenshots.
The least well-covered areas are “white boarding.” There are tools. None seem good enough or fit our needs. But we’re creative. We make do.
Your wife, Kelsey Taylor Hunt, is a rug maker. I understand she’s enlarged her scope and activity. How does this manifest?
Yes! She’s working at a larger scale than ever before, and is just getting ramped up here. It’s been exciting to see. You can follow along on her Instagram at kome.design. For the work she does, she can’t do it at home because of the equipment and scale. For someone like her, the ability to do her work depends on changes in recommendations and mandates from the government. If she’s unable to travel or restricted to home, her major work would be on hold. Thankfully, some graph paper and a pencil is always handy, so work in one form or another can continue.
There are many designers who can work remotely. Some cannot. As a veteran of the online world, how do you think this crisis situation has altered the work and lives of designers?
It’s rare in most of the spaces I work in that remote arrangements affect work. Even when a designer’s personal processes use more offline methods, there are alternatives, even if imperfect. That includes research methods, prototyping and more. Conveniently, pre-pandemic we were already investing in more remote methods and tools, in part to lower our climate impact from air travel.
What’s harder, is where people thrive on social interaction. I’m an introvert, and can thrive alone in this office, but that’s not for everyone. We’re creating more ways for the team to socialize and stay connected: sharing playlists, virtual happy hours, and of course experimenting with our video backgrounds.
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